By Peter I. W. Harvey contents
I was born in India in 1921, where my Father was serving with the Gurkha
Rifles on the North West Frontier. Even in those far off days after
the first world war, the government was making cuts and my father’s
unit was cut down by the “Geddes Axe”. We returned to
England and settled in Winford, a small village to the north of the Mendip
hills in Somerset. My first experience of caves was when I was about
seven years old. My mother took me and my younger brother to Wookey
Hole Cave on the south side of Mendip. I have two memories of this
expedition. One was sitting in the sun in Burrington Combe eating
oranges. The other is, while eating a cream tea by the swimming
pool after the trip through the cave, there was a pretty girl whose swimsuit
when wet was see-through and who kept climbing to the high board and diving
in. My mother explained to me that she could not have been a very
nice girl but omitted to tell me why; my mother was always very mysterious
when I broached the subject of girls. I had, in the end, to learn
all about them in a “hands on” mode at a somewhat later date.
Of the excursion through the show cave I have no recollection. At
this period in my life caves do not appear to have interested me very
much. The year was probably 1928 when the sport of exploring caves
was only just beginning.
Not long after this my family moved to Stoke Gabriel, a small village
on the River Dart in Devonshire. In the term time I was incarcerated
in a boarding school in Bristol but in the holidays, as I was the proud
owner of a bicycle, I was able to move around the countryside quite
freely. Whilst exploring the lanes round my new home I found a very
small cave entrance in an old disused limestone quarry. It took
a while for me to find the right position to squeeze through the tiny
opening. Inside, I could just stand up and in the light of my bicycle
torch I could see that the small chamber was blocked to the roof, after
about fifteen feet further in, by a pile of boulders. Later in life
I would probably have had a go at digging through this obstruction!
I have since had a look at this hole and it was so small that I wondered
how on earth I managed to get in it, even though I was only about ten
years old. I had broken the first rule of caving in that I had told
no-one where I was going; the only evidence of my whereabouts would have
been my abandoned bicycle in the quarry.
The exploration of caves before the First World War was only of interest
to a few people. In the early days in Britain the main interest
was centred on the limestone areas of the Yorkshire Dales, in Derbyshire
and the Mendip Hills in Somerset. Members of the Yorkshire Ramblers
Club were exploring some of the open holes in the north. This activity
was given a boost after Martel bottomed Gaping Gill in 1895. Meanwhile
on Mendip it was at about the turn of the century that Herbert Balch started
to investigate the underground rivers feeding the resurgences on the south
side of the hills. He was later joined by Ernest Baker and they
published their experiences in ‘Netherworld of Mendip’.
In 1901 Balch organised the first exploratory expeditions into Swildon’s
Hole. After further exploration in Swildon’s was denied
by the owner, Balch turned his attention to Eastwater Swallet, where he
had to dig his way through a considerable depth of collapsed boulders.
However, the locking of Swildons did not stop them for long as they managed
to find a ‘duplicate key’ and there ensued some midnight caving
In the late 1940s, just after the war, when I first went into Eastwater
Swallet, there were still traces of a ball of string which was used to
mark the correct route through the ‘Boulder Ruckle’ as it
was known. To Mr Balch must go the credit of having been one of
the first cave explorers to enter a new cave by digging. He could
also claim to be one of the first persons to be successfully rescued from
a cave after falling and breaking his arm on the 60ft pitch in Lamb Lair,
a cave with a huge chamber that is near the top of Harptree Hill on the
North side of Mendip. back
to the top
After the First World War, interest in caving on the Mendips was mainly
confined to two small groups. One was the Mendip Nature Research
Committee (MNRC) and the other was the University of Bristol Speleological
Society (UBSS). Both were carrying out mainly archaeological research
in cave entrances; exploration and digging for new caves seems to have
been carried out only occasionally.
It was while I was at school in Bristol that I was introduced to my first
wild cave. During the 1937 Easter holiday I was on a canoeing expedition
down the River Wye, a trip organised by one of the school masters.
We took about a week to canoe from Builth Wells to Chepstow, camping each
night beside the river. The canoes were Canadian style, hired from
a firm in Oxford. They were delivered by rail to Builth Wells and
returned by rail from Chepstow, all for thirty shillings each (£1.50),
including the hire charge.
We had reached Symonds Yat on about the third day. The river becomes
quite fast after the ferry and canoeing these rapids was quite exciting.
We stopped on the right bank lower down and examined some man-made openings
in the hillside. They were not very extensive and I don't remember
going far out of the sight of daylight. However, on the left bank,
we could see an opening quite high up the wooded hillside. We were
soon across the river and climbing through the trees to this new entrance.
Our illumination was only a couple of candles each and a box of matches.
There were no formations and the cave was only a single passage about
400 feet long but it was during this trip that I must have caught the
bug. My memory of it is very hazy and a hand-held candle is probably
the worst form of underground light there is; one’s eyes are continually
blinded by the flame. Anyway the cave turned several corners and
we progressed well out of the sight of daylight. It was probably
a good introduction to caving because there were no difficult sections
and the whole place was dry, giving no clue to the miseries of wet and
cold I was to enjoy later on. I believe this cave is known as Lady
I was a member of a small group called “The Venturers”.
The school did not allow Scouts for some reason and this was a way of
getting round the ban. The schoolmaster who ran the group took small
parties of us out on expeditions that included rambling, simple climbing,
abseiling and, occasionally, caving with short trips into Goatchurch and
Swildons Hole on the Mendips. I was on one of these outings and
we spent an enjoyable time being led round the upper series of Swildons
Hole. This was my first a real cave with stalactites, stalagmites
and a rushing river, which disappeared over an enormous waterfall.
We were soaked to the skin and pretty cold, our garb being shorts, football
shirts and sweaters with tennis shoes on our feet. We did not suffer
any ill effects and were returned to Bristol in high spirits after a fine
It was at school that I met Jim Braithwaite. He was a few years
older than I was and was one of the older ones on the canoe trips which
took place during the Easter holidays. After we had left school
I met up with him again, along with his two brothers John and Bernard.
They had all joined the newly formed WCC (the Wessex) and were caving
on Mendip regularly. During this period a few members of the Mendip
clubs started to turn their attentions to a new area - South Wales.
Gerard Platten and a few members of the Mendip Exploration Society (MES)
attracted a group of people from various clubs, which he called the Dragon
Group, and the MES later formed a Welsh Group, which included some people
already living in South Wales. In 1939 the importance of South Wales
as a caving area was recognised by the British Speleological Association
who held their annual conference in Swansea. This was organised
by Jim Braithwaite who had taken a great interest in the caves of the
Neath and Mellte Valleys. At this time the BSA was purporting to
be a national body but after the war it deteriorated into a northern pothole
club. This was mainly due to the antics of Eli Simpson, whose title
I believe was ‘recorder’. There are stories of BSA meetings
taking place with strong-arm men on the doors to keep out those who opposed
“Simmy” as he was known.
In 1937 I was apprenticed to the Bristol Aeroplane Company and joined
Jim and his brothers exploring Baker’s Pit cave at Buckfastleigh
in Devon. This was a day’s outing from Bristol and we all
went to Devon in Jim’s car. The cave itself was dry and most
of it consisted of crawling on hands and knees and struggling through
even smaller places. We were dressed in the usual garb of rugger
shorts and sweater with gym shoes on our feet and of course candles and
matches for illumination. My recollections of this cave are mainly
lost because although I enjoyed it at the time there was nothing special
to remember it by except John asking us to say goodbye to his mother for
him if he failed to get out. back
to the top
This trip was to be my last underground adventure until the latter part
of the war. It was now 1939 and in the Bristol Aeroplane Company
Aero-Engine Division we were working long hours, while at the same time
I was studying for my Higher National Certificate in Mechanical Engineering.
The war was soon upon us, and one day I was surprised to see Blenheim
aircraft on the airfield with Finnish markings. We were supplying
these to the Finns to help them defend themselves against the Russians
who were invading them. I was working in the Aero Engine Design
Stress Office, engaged on the design and stressing of reduction gearing
and supercharger drives.
We students were not allowed by the factory inspectors to work seven
days a week so we generally chose to have Saturdays off and so were able
to meet for coffee at the Berkley Cafe at the top of Park Street, opposite
the University. There were two reasons for taking Saturday off:
we were paid double on Sunday and nothing was open on Saturday.
I eventually obtained my HNC and a small gang of us seemed to have developed
a thirst for knowledge so we carried on through courses for Higher Mathematics,
Advanced Stress Analysis and a course on Vibrations. By this time
I had had enough and failed to enter for the most important exam, which
was part C for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
Considering the hours we worked and the lack of exercise we were remarkably
fit. Most nights we consumed quantities of watery beer at whatever
pubs were open, to make it easier to sleep through the minor air raids.
One night a week was spent on Home Guard duty. Towards the end of
the war the Home Guard started manning anti-aircraft gunsites; half the
guns manned by the regulars and the rest by the Home Guard, thus releasing
army personnel for overseas. Getting enough sleep was therefore
something to be kept in mind. So was food. I had supper in
my digs [lodgings] before going on duty and then had another one at the
site. In the morning I had breakfast on the site and went back to
my digs for another breakfast. I had about ten different digs during
my war years in Bristol. It was at one these that I had some “hands
on” instruction from the landlady on the subject upon which my mother
had failed to advise me.
Towards the end of the war things were getting a little easier.
It began to seem that we were going to win. The Aero-engine Design
Office, which during the war was housed in Fry’s Chocolate factory
at Keynsham, had returned to its home at Patchway. It was here I
met Colin Low, who introduced me to his friend John Lander. They
were friends of Paul Dolphin, who was still in the Royal Air Force.
Before the war he was caving on Mendip with the MES and, in South Wales,
had started a dig at a swallet above Dan yr Ogof called Waun Fignen Felen.
They, together with Norman Paddock, came to be loosely referred to as
the Dolphin Gang. Paul was also a member of the Dragon Group and
later on, after the demise of the MES, the WCC. These two, with
John’s and Paul’s wives dragged me off to the Mendips and
took me into GB cave. This was discovered by UBSS members Francis
Goddard and Charles Barker a few weeks after the start of the war and
was still in pristine condition. At the foot of the entrance passage
one arrived at the grottoes, an upper and lower grotto whose walls were
covered in pure white helictites sometimes referred to as erratics on
account of their growth being anything but vertical. Most of these
have now, sadly, been destroyed. Following the original route past
places with picturesque names such as “The Elephant’s Arsehole”
and “The Devil’s Elbow” one eventually arrived in the
main gorge. The Devil’s Elbow was very constricted and usually
half-full of water, which meant that th ere was no escape from a soaking.
The Gorge is one of the two largest chambers on Mendip, the other being
in Lamb Lair. This chamber is about 80ft high, 80ft wide and something
like 200ft long. High in the roof were magnificent stalactites up
to 18ft long, which were only just visible in the beams of our poor lights.
I was living at this time in what can only be described as ‘Superdigs’.
There were over 60 guests of both sexes. The girls were kept under
the wing of Madam in the main house while the men had rooms in one of
the two annexes. The intention here was to encourage a “hands
off” situation, a goal which was not always successful. We
all had our own seats at table where we had a saucer with our weekly ration
of 2oz. butter and a small jar for the sugar ration. I remember
that the hot taps on the baths were spring loaded and a secondary overflow
had been cut in the end about six inches from the bottom. Apart
from these wartime inconveniences, the place was very comfortable.
There were several lounges, one with a television and a snooker room.
I found that one of the inmates was John Parkes who had done some potholing
in the North of England with the BSA and had moved down to the south because
of his job. He had joined the UBSS as an outside member. We
were soon caving regularly from the UBSS hut above Burrington Combe, where
I met Bill Weaver. I learned that he was working in the same place
as I was, the Bristol Aeroplane Co. at Patchway. It was John Parkes
and Bill Weaver who first explored Longwood Swallet after the Sidcot School
club led by R. Stride opened up the entrance in April 1945.
I was soon familiar with all the caves round the Burrington area, which
included Goatchurch, Rod’s Pot, Sidcot and Read’s Cavern.
I made many trips to GB and to Longwood, where I helped John and Bill
with a dig near the Main Chamber. This was a pretty horrible dig.
We were excavating a slot in the floor on the right-hand side of the passage
with a small stream going down. We took it in turn to lie in this
water and, with a hammer and chisel, remove bits of rock from the bottom
of the hole. There was no fancy modern cave-wear such as wetsuits
or furry suits, just old sweaters and clothes which were too old or shabby
to be worn above ground. They just soaked up the water as it flowed
over you head down in the hole. After the unpleasantness of the
actual dig there was always the struggle out through the tight entrance
series and then the walk back to the UBSS hut the other side of Blackdown,
usually in the dark. There was at least one member of the team who
was extremely pleased when the decision was made to abandon the dig because
it was not showing any signs of going anywhere. back
to the top
I was now caving regularly with the UBSS and was invited to join as an
outside member, which I accepted. I teamed up with Ian Nixon and
started a dig in the Bath Swallet, which was the nearest one of a line
of swallets outside the UBSS hut above Burrington Combe. This must
have been a kind of apprenticeship, as I believe many members had dug
in this swallet before and after us without much success. It was
during this period that I met a number of early UBSS members, among them
Bertie Crook and, later on, when he returned from prisoner of war camp
at Singapore, E. K.Tratman or ‘Tratty’. Another person
who was a member for a while at the time was Beppo Occhialini, who was
doing some research at Bristol University. His name was to appear
again later on in France during the exploration of the 1000ft pothole
Pierre Saint-Martin which, through poor engineering, claimed the life
of Marcel Loubens.
was in the Autumn of 1945 that I made my first visit to Wales. I
now had a motorcycle and there was also a small ration of petrol for personal
use. The party consisted of John Parkes, Bill Weaver, Anne whom
John was to marry later, and one other whose name I forget. Our
intention was to explore a cave called Pwll Swnd, which was on Foel Fraith,
a limestone mountainside more than a mile east of Herbert’s Quarry,
on the Brynamman mountain road. Pwll Swnd had been found by Arthur
Hill and Gwyn Tudor (later to become Mrs. Hill) while walking on the mountain
at the beginning of the war. Not many visits had been made since
then. The cave consisted of a small entrance series to a 30ft. pitch,
the top of which was exceedingly tight. Arthur had failed to negotiate
this constriction and I believe that some years later I enlarged it with
explosive for his benefit. I don’t remember doing this but
I see that it is recorded in my diary. The discovery is recorded
in the British Caver Vol 4 p69:
The entrance was discovered
just before Easter 1939 by A. Hill and Miss Tudor. They reported
a small cave, on the eastern slope of Foel Fraith, with a promising fissure
in the floor. Accordingly, on April 9th, Hill, Miss Tudor and G.
Platten went up to the cave with 25ft of rope ladder etc. The cave
is situated on a major fault and is on the junction of the grits and limestones.
We entered by a small hole in the rock. The cave extends for some
60 ft and in a side passage was the rift. We spent some hours trying
to force our bodies down it without success, only succeeding in losing
our ladder down the rift. The next day the same party, plus Carhill,
armed with a ladder, sledgehammer and a steel wedge again attacked the
rift and eventually made the descent which proved to be 40ft and ended
in a dry sump. Some 9ft up on one side was a low tunnel, about 15ft
long. This we wormed through, not expecting much, so unpromising
did it look. On wriggling out we discovered to our amazement, that
we stood at the head of what turned out to be a tremendous ‘Master
Cavern’! Our small party was obviously inadequate to fully
explore the ramifications of this vast place. Side passages frequently
branched off, as we clambered down the ever bigger main passage.
Stalagmite wonders abounded everywhere. Huge rocks strewed the floor
and to judge by the stalagmite pillars formed on them, in some places,
must have fallen many, many years ago! The roof, where we could
see it, appeared secure. Several large avens were passed and one
very large chamber, out of which led two yawning black voids awaiting
exploration. The whole place was completely dry and numerous bats
were flying around. We halted, at last, at 450 paces from the tunnel-crawl.
The Dragons have been called up for the first major exploration on May
28th. Will it connect with Dan y Ogof, 12 miles away as the crow
flies or at the water issue of Ffrydiau Twrch, 2 miles away?
This was the extent of our knowledge of the cave when we set out from
Bristol fairly early on the Saturday morning, John Parkes in his Morris
Minor with the others, and me on motorcycle. It was raining!
We arrived at Herbert’s Quarry before midday after driving round
via Gloucester; this was in the days before the Severn Bridge. The
other alternative was to cross the River Severn by the ferry but there
was not much to choose between waiting in the queue for the ferry, which
usually meant an hour’s delay, or driving round via Gloucester.
We changed into caving clothes in the quarry and started walking towards
Foel Fraith, about a mile and a half over the mountain. It was now
raining harder than ever and it was so cold that I was surprised that
it was not snowing. Bill said he knew where the entrance was.
Three hours later we were still walking up and down the mountain in the
wind and rain following Bill looking for Pwll Swnd; some of us by now
were praying that he would not find it. Even in fine weather this
cave is very difficult to locate, so our chances of finding it in the
wind and rain with the clouds down was pretty small. As we had never
been there before we could have walked right past it several times without
noticing it. In the end he had to admit defeat and we returned to
Herbert’s Quarry, where we explored a small cave high up in the
quarry face known as Ogof Pasg or Easter Cave. It was a great relief
to escape the weather and get into the warmth of the cave. Inside
the tight entrance, the main passages were large enough to walk about
in. Off these we found a system of small tunnels with mud floors
just large enough to crawl in flat out. One of these was completely
blocked by a stalactite. I am sorry to record that this was removed
in the interests of further exploration. Unfortunately this ‘rabbit
hole’ closed down round the next corner. On our way out we
met another caver. He was a local collier called Eddie Morgan who
informed us that we were caving on his patch! As he did not own
the derelict quarry we did not take a lot of notice. Later I discovered
that he became known as Eddie Greaseproof because he had left the pit
and was a traveller in greaseproof paper. back
to the top
We spent a very pleasant night in the Red Lion at Llangadog. In
the morning it was still raining so we packed up and returned to Bristol.
We took the road back over the Brynamman pass to the Swansea Valley were
I was to spend so much of my time in the future. I did not realise
this as I drove past Dan yr Ogof and the Gwyn Arms in the pouring rain;
cavers were to enjoy the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. David Price at the
Gwyn for many years to come but, with about 120 miles still to go before
I reached home, I was not all that interested. It never occurred
to me that it would be interesting to see Dan yr Ogof in flood as some
of the roads were in flood anyway. This weekend was my first to
Wales and, so I understand, it rains for everyone on their first visit
to these mountains.
Back on Mendip I spent many weekends helping John Parkes and Bill Weaver
with their dig at Plantation Swallet, near the St. Cuthbert’s Mineries,
Priddy. We spent days digging sand out of a very narrow tunnel which
seemed to go on for ever and in which the air at the end was none too
good during the last few visits. This dig is somewhere near the
site of the present BEC hut and St Cuthbert’s Swallet, which was
found much later. We gave up in the end, probably because we found
another site which appeared to have a greater promise of success and perhaps
have a draught of fresh air. Anyway, it was a long way from our
base at Burrington. Digs then always seemed to go on until something
more promising turned up or further progress became impossible, but that
was going to change…
Edited by Jem Rowland, back
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